Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Slump

  US chess champion Hikaru Nakamura had a stellar chess Olympiad in Instanbul last month. He started with 3 wins and 3 draws and then defeated former world champion Vladimir Kramnik in leading the US team an upset over the top ranked Russian team. Even after a final round loss to Polish GM Radoslaw, Nakamura set an American record of sorts when his international rating passed Bobby Fisher’s 2785 to become the highest FIDE-rated American player ever.

  American hopes were high for Nakamura as he went directly from Instanbul to London for the London Chess Classic, an annual tournament featuring many of the top chess players on the planet. In the 2011 version, Nakamura finished in second place with world number 1 Magnus Carlsen, just behind Kramnik (who beat Nakamura in their individual encounter). With Carlsen and world champion Anand competing in the super tournament in São Paulo Brazil (continuing in Bilbao, Spain next week), this year’s London tournament does not have the star power of last years, but without the customary invitations to the lower rated local British players, the tournament is stronger and more balanced than ever.

  Nakamura‘s London tournament got off to a rocky start with a loss as White to World Championship challenger Boris Gelfand in the first round, but he rebounded with a nice win against Rustam Kasimdzhanov (the lowest rated player in the field) with the Black pieces and seemingly stabilized himself with draws in the next 3 rounds, but was outplayed in the sixth round by Chinese GM Wang Hao, and lost an explosive game against tournament leader Mamedyarov in round 7.

  The 2 losses left Nakamura and Kasimdzhanov at the bottom of the leaderboard but then Nakamura butchered an even ending against Vassily Ivanchuk and then blundered against Michael Adams for his fourth straight loss and a free fall into last place, a full point behind Cuban Leinier Dominguez with 2 rounds to go.

  There could be many reasons for Nakamura’s sudden slump. He could have come down with an illness. He could be too exhausted to compete at his highest level after the strain of the Olympiad. He may even have a girlfriend. Don’t laugh at that last suggestion: It is alleged that Bobby Fischer’s worst tournament result (13th place in a 1960 Buenos Aires tournament) was the result of his being introduced to and becoming smitten with a local woman.

  The most likely reason for the slump is that Nakamura started pressing to get a win, ended up losing a game instead, started pressing even more to get a win, made a mistake and lost, pressed even more to get a win, etc…, etc… It is a common occurrence that happens in competitions of all sorts.

  Even whole teams can go into slumps. Last month I wrote about the Pittsburgh Pirates quest to break their string of 19 consecutive losing seasons. They followed a 63-47 start with a 9-19 stretch to lower their record to 72-66. After that they went 6-16 to bring their record to 78-82 and clinch their 20th straight losing season. There were no injuries of note to cause a team playing at a .570 clip to suddenly not be able to win even a third of their games. I think the team suffered a collective collapse of confidence after being swept by the lowly Padres in early August and instead of expecting good things to happen, started expecting to find ways to lose. The Pirates have plenty of young talent on their roster, but it is now up to management to not panic and clean house, but identify a veteran player or two that have been on winning teams to show these youngsters how to expect to win in the face of adversity.

  In his book, ‘The Hustler’s Handbook’, former baseball team owner Bill Veeck devoted an entire chapter to the psychology of slumps. Veeck was not only a master promoter (he once sent midget Eddie Gaedel to hit in a major league game and gave us Disco Demolition Night), he was an early pioneer in using psychologists to the identify what qualities were needed in successful major league players.

  Veeck attributed the beginnings of a batting slump to a hard hit ball or 2 are turn into outs either because they were hit directly to a fielder or the result of a great fielding play. The batter then starts trying to hit the ball even harder than he was before (even though he has been hitting the ball as hard as ever) and gets his swing messed up. At that point, the batter has lost his confidence and is taking advice from anyone and everyone which messes him up even further. Veeck notes that while most of the slumps he saw come from hard hit balls turning into outs, slumps end in the opposite way: a slow moving ground ball or lazy pop up finds its way between 2 fielders, the batter ends up with a undeserved base hit, and confidence is restored. Veeck also believed a good way to help a batter break out of a slump was to get him drunk the night before a game and make him play in a hungover state to help him relax. If this seems simplistic please remember that Veeck era predates even the infancy of sports psychology (1940’s and 1950’s) when observation was the primary scientific method.

Like chess, Haley's Broaster Chicken has the power to make men happy. But can it help end a slump?

  I’ve been interested in slumps lately because after reviewing my chess results I’ve discovered that I’ve been in a chess slump all year. In 2012, I’ve won exactly one game against a higher rated player and that game was in January. There’s been a few draws against higher rated players but to go nine months without an upset is well, upsetting. After re-reading the chapter on slumps in the Veeck book, I think the best way to break my slump is to just keep on trying to get better by doing tactic puzzles and studying and my slump will be over without even noticing it.

  I had an encouraging sign that my luck may be changing for the better when I decided to get some Broaster Chicken at Haley’s Deli this past Sunday. Haley’s has a Sunday special of 10 pieces of chicken for $10.99, but the last 2 times I took them up on the special I got what must have been the most mutated chickens ever. Chickens normally have 2 breasts, 2 thighs, 2 legs, and 2 wings. When I worked at the Roy Rogers fast food place years ago, every chicken assortment would contain as many 8 piece chickens as possible and then filling in the remainder with a quarter (a wing and breast or a leg and thigh) or half a chicken. The last 2 10 packs from Haley’s had only one breast, one thigh, five wings, and 3 legs. I’d hate to see what these chickens looked like with their feathers on! I hadn’t gotten any Haley’s chicken in over a month but I was happy to see that this week I got a full figured chicken with 3 breasts, 3 thighs, 2 wings, and 2 legs.

The Haley's Broasted Chicken box contained a standard chicken and 2 big pieces besides!!
A happy ending at last...

  Nakamura won a nice game on Tuesday over Anish Giri from the Netherlands yesterday game to edge closer to escaping the basement with one round to go. There is no word on if he had fried chicken from Haley’s flown in.